Dark Mode: It’s Not Just for Nerds Anymore

iOS 13 Public Beta’s marquee feature is all about the screen

Two people at a pool spot an ultra-cool iPhone using Dark Mode

Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

If you computed anytime between 1975 and 1995, you know about Dark Mode, or at least the Original Gangster version of it known charmingly as “DOS.” The inky black background and fine, sharp white (or green) text and blinking cursor was an invitation to launch a command, an app, a call to print. It was also graphically challenged; presenting, at best, clumsy ASCII art in place of JPEGs, icons and images.

DOS is tech nostalgia but Dark Mode, the great grandchild of that early PC tech tradition, is tech now.

Like DOS, Dark Mode puts white (or blue or green or yellow) text on a pitch-black background. Unlike DOS, Dark Mode supports all the graphic flourishes you expect from a modern platform, and it does so across desktop and mobile platforms.

iPhone X with iOS 12 Dark Mode switch

This week, Dark Mode officially takes residence in iOS 13, now in its first public beta. Apple’s public OS betas are considered stable-enough for a larger population of enterprising iPhone, iPad, and Mac owners to test drive, though I would caution you that “Beta” is still synonymous with “unstable." So dive in at your own risk.

With iOS 13 on the iPhone, Dark Mode is a one-tap operation found under Settings/Display & Brightness, and it transforms all of your system tools and many of Apple’s built-in apps, including Photos and Maps, from bright white to moody black (with white or blue text). Maps, in particular, gives the impression that the world has tumbled into permanent night. The next version of Android (10), by the way, has its own Dark Mode, though Google calls it Dark Theme to be either clever or difficult.

I’ve been running the iOS 13 Dev Beta on an iPhone XR in Dark Mode for a couple of weeks and while I find it a pleasant visual alternative, I’m still struggling to understand what all the fuss is about.

And there is fuss.

Going Dark

Virtually every list I found of the major iOS 13 features starts with Dark Mode. Never mind new battery management features, an updated Photos App, or sign into other apps using your Apple ID, Dark Mode tops the list again and again.

Perhaps it’s because Dark Mode has been a sort of movement on the web for almost a decade and the subject of research for more than 15 years. While never explicitly mentioning Dark Mode (good luck figuring out who coined that term), a 2004 University of Missouri study found that “For educational sites, where retention and readability, especially readability, are a major concern; black on white text should be used.” The researchers found that the contrast ratio (and font choice) helped with readability and information retention.

Command Prompt in Windows with text

Up to that point, the same study notes, the accepted web design wisdom, as conjured by the legendary Jakob Nielsen, was the exact opposite. “Optimal legibility requires black text on white background (so-called positive text),” wrote Nielsen. Though he did add that white text on a black background is almost just as good.

It’s also widely accepted that Dark Mode on desktop computers can help reduce eye strain. It certainly drains the screen of all that blue light that keeps us, and our children, awake late into the night. Come to think of it, a Kids Screen Mode that includes Dark Mode might not be a bad idea. On mobile devices, there’s some anecdotal evidence that Dark Mode, which essentially leaves some pixels “off,” can marginally improve battery life.

We Love the Dark

Three iPhones showing off Dark Mode in iOS 13
 Apple Inc

None of this really accounts for the somewhat rabid enthusiasm for this feature. The iOS 13 Dark Mode announcement at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference was met with cheers (just as the MacOS Dark Mode announcement was a year earlier). Obviously, that was a room full of developers who spend their time staring at code, often working in apps that allow them to replicate the look and feel of a DOS terminal.

I also think there’s a certain cachet to running your phone in Dark Mode. It’s like donning a beret, a scarf, and smoking a thin cigarette. You look cool, with just a hint of absurdity.

You see Dark Mode is a bit of a myth. Most people who run it on MacOS, for instance, still spend the majority of their day staring at black text and images on white backgrounds.The majority of the web and most apps are not in Dark Mode, nor do they offer the option to switch (Apple and Google are now providing developers with tools to add Dark Mode options to their apps). There is no "Master Dark Mode Switch" for all of technology.

In my experience, Dark Mode is readable, but also a little sad. It just feels like all of my technology is a little down. When my screen is bright, I imagine it’s like a chipper puppy anxiously awaiting a belly rub, or in the case of my phone, a tap and gesture. Dark Mode is too serious and almost too cool for me.

Recently I tried out Twitter for the web’s Dark Mode and, I swear, most of my tweets from that stretch were downers. I need the light.

If you want a trip down Dark Mode memory lane without switching up your desktop or smartphone, try typing “CMD” into your Windows PC’s search bar to launch the Command Prompt. And just like that, you’re looking through a dark window into our DOS past. It’s classic Dark Mode without all the fuss.